Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Faraway Places With Strange Sounding Names

Today, join mystery author Maria Hudgins as she takes us on a trip around the world. And it's free!

Faraway Places with Strange-sounding Names

Each of my mystery novels is set in a different country and there are 195 countries on the planet. If I write one novel a year, I figure, I won’t run out of settings until the year 2201. (I’ve already done three) Of course, there’s method in my madness because I love to go places. I ain’t dumb. Unfortunately, I have yet to convince my accountant that I can deduct travel expenses before I’ve actually used the setting in a book and the lag time, my friends, is years.

Ah, well. If I didn’t write, I’d still travel.

Wherever I go I’m on the lookout for settings to use and also for spots mentioned in my favorite mysteries. When I read a story set in London or New York I always keep a city map beside me and follow the sleuth (or the killer) around from street to street. Did you know London has a Baker Street but there’s no 221B on it? Sherlock Holmes would have had to sleep on the sidewalk I guess. Seriously, when you’re writing fiction you have to be careful not to put the action in someone’s real house. Especially not a murder. The real-life residents tend to get upset about that.

I have attended church services in the thousand-year-old church in Oxford where Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane were married. Let’s forget the fact that they were fictional and the church is real! I’ve located a dozen other places in Oxford used in the Inspector Morse episodes, including, I kid you not, Gill the Ironmongers. Revisit Last Bus to Woodstock if you have it handy. I have attended a real murder trial in London’s Old Bailey. It’s almost exactly like the Edward Petherbridge/Harriet Walter Strong Poison, except they now have laptops on all the desks and the women in the gallery don’t wear big hats. And the carpet is new. By the way, they’ll let you go in to observe but DON’T bring a camera. And your belongings will be searched.

In Vienna, I saw the Prater Wheel, the big Ferris wheel that figures prominently in Graham Greene’s The Third Man. Remember the tense scene with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton in the amusement park? I looked at the manhole covers in downtown Vienna but stopped short of taking the sewer system tour I’ve heard they offer to die-hard fans of the movie.

In England summer before last, I rented a car and drove around in the Cotswold Hills soaking up the air in the little villages that have been the setting of so many mysteries. Trying to drive in the Cotswolds was a big mistake. Chipping Norton, Bourton-on-the-Water, Shipton-under-Wychwood, Lower Slaughter –even the names are mysterious.

In Aswan, Egypt my travel mates and I took a felucca trip, which sailed us past the Old Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie wrote part of Death on the Nile. Our guide pointed out the terrace where she (allegedly) sat and wrote. A couple of days later, our ferry lucked into docking beside the very boat used in filming the BBC version of that same story starring David Suchet as Poirot.
I looked it up online. Yes, you can sail the Nile on it. No, it isn’t cheap.

Do I think setting is important in a mystery? Absolutely. The tone of the story makes all the difference. Is setting more important than plot or characters? No. I don’t know how to answer that because the writer forgets any of these three at his own peril. Ask yourself. Would you care to read a mystery with a dull setting? With cardboard characters? With a dumb plot? I thought not.

I’m always on the lookout for new settings and I’ve found several I really want to use if I ever run into a plot or characters that fit them. One is Highgate Cemetery in London. It’s spooky and it has hundreds of little paths leading off to who knows where. Another is Zermatt, Switzerland. There is a wonderful tunnel leading straight into a mountain and to an elevator. You’d never know it was there unless you were told. If anyone reading this is a writer, help yourself to these settings. I give them to you.

How about the big island of Hawaii? I don’t know. I’ve never been to Hawaii but since I’m going there for the Left Coast Crime Conference in March, you can be sure I’ll have my eyes open for possibilities.

Maria Hudgins’s Dotsy Lamb Travel Mysteries include: Death of an Obnoxious Tourist, 2006, Death of a Lovable Geek, 2008, and Death on the Aegean Queen, coming in 2010. You can visit her website at www.mariahudgins.com

One aside from Terry: There is a 221B Baker Street in London, but it's a museum. The Sherlock Holmes Museum. Says a lot that people are willing to fork over bucks to see the "history" of a fictional character! (Yes, I'm one of them.)


Anonymous said...


This is a truly fascinating article! Your mysteries are terrific! I definitely have to travel more. Terry, I'd fork over some cash to see Baker Street myself. I haven't been to London yet, but I can't imagine any place more interesting to writers (except maybe NYC or San Francisco, but I've been to both places).

Jacqueline Seewald
THE INFERNO COLLECTION, Five Star/Gale, Wheeler large print
coming in February:

Liane Gentry Skye said...

What a wonderful article. You fired up my wanderlust! I can hear the dinner conversation now...."Dear, I need to go to Orkney. Not for pleasure, darling. Purely a work effort. Sorry, no, can't take you...

It always works for *him*.


Terry Odell said...

Jacqueline -- I don't regret the pounds we spent at 221-B Baker Street. It had been a while since I read the Holmes stories, and it was fun trying to match the memorabilia with my memories.

Liane - I hear you. Any excuse to travel, but what's better than "research".

Sharon Ervin said...

When we met, Maria, I thought you a quiet, sophisticated woman. Months later I read DEATH OF AN OBNOXIOUS TOURIST and whooped at your humor. Traveling with you is a hoot. Keep 'em coming, honey.

Jenyfer Matthews said...

What great titles you have! Going to have to check these out :)

I also love to travel and am always collecting new settings for stories!

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Maria and Terry,
I enjoyed your Death of an Obnoxious Tourist and I'm looking forward to your next release!

Maggie Toussaint
IN FOR A PENNY, Five Star/Gale
Wheeler large print out now
more titles at www.maggietoussaint.com

Anonymous said...

Maria, I enjoyed reading about your travels. I too love to travel--and
enjoy Hawaii when you go to LCC. It's a great place.
L. C. Hayden

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking seriously about going to London in August and I'll definitely take a stroll down Baker Street. I have been to the Sherlock Holmes Pub on Northumberland. They have a little room set up that's supposed to look like Holmes's flat, but to me it looked a lot smaller than I imagine his digs to have been.

Sharon, I consider your comment about my humor a great honor because it comes from a writer with her own great sense of humor!

Beth Groundwater said...

A great interview! Of course, I've known for awhile that Maria is a fascinating person. Thanks for giving her a forum, Terry. I'll be checking out your blog more often!

Terry Odell said...

Glad you stopped by, Beth. Hope to see you often.

Neil Plakcy said...

I was lucky enough to spend a few hours stuck in an airport with Maria after a conference-- was it Left Coast Crime in Denver? I got to experience first hand her charm and humor-- and this article just reinforces that opinion!

Ray said...

Maria makes me regret retirement. I can only visit faraway places through memory or the eyes of others.

I would love to visit Baker Street. I've tipped a pint or two at the pub where Elizabeth Barrett Browning stayed during her three year stint in Torquay around 1840. Every booth has one of her poems on the wall. Torquay is in an area called The English Riviera, also the birthplace of Agatha Christie. I've been to her museum with its first editions on display as well as her apothecary paraphernalia. Her knowledge of pharmacology was the basis of her poisoning murders. Her home is at the bottom of a hill directly overlooking the River Dart. I rode from Torquay on a bicycle trip to her home. Unfortunately it was Sunday the estate was closed as her daughter was still resident there.

I so miss travel. I even got a kick out of Singapore customs officers confiscating chewing gum from passenger's luggage.